Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Professor James Barr on Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

Professor James Barr (1924-2006) was an influential Bible scholar of the late 20th century. His most influential work was The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961) in which he exposed problems with interpreting Hebrew based on questionable etymologies or theological bias. Specifically, he criticized the practice of attributing new meanings to Hebrew words by comparing them to words in other Semitic languages. In this he was quite right. The roots of many Hebrew words in the Old Testament are not found in the Semitic languages, but in languages of Paleolithic peoples long before the time of the emergence of Semitic languages.

Many of the symbols found in these proto-languages can be traced back to symbols found in archaic rock shelters

The root of the word Hebrew is older even than the ancient Egyptian and Ugaritic languages in which the word piru meant house, shrine or temple. The O'piru were the Sun temples of the ancient world found from Africa to Anatolia and Anatolia to paleolithic Gaul. The Sun was the emblem of the Creator among Abraham's R1b people, and the servants of the Sun temples were called ha'piru, 'apiru or ha'biru, which is "Hebrew" in English Bibles.

Barr also criticized the Christian fundamentalist approach to Biblical interpretation as irresponsible. He came to the conclusion, based on his study of the Bible, that God is knowable to humans through the created world (cf. Rom. 1:20).

Given what we know about Professor James Barr's views and high scholarship, it is important to place his work in the proper perspective. Barr's approach is linguistic and in that sense, scientific. That is what brought the following quote to the attention of the peddlers of young-Earth creationism. However, they do the man a great injustice.

Here is the quote that is popular among young-earth creationists:
Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience. (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.

Note that Barr is simply saying that the writer of Genesis 1 meant "days" as human experience them in the region of the Middle East.  He is not insisting that the days of creation were six 24-hour days. That may be true, but there is no reason to insist on this since there is a gap of millions of years between Genesis 4:1 and Genesis 4:17.

Barr also believes that the Genesis writer believed that the people named in Genesis 4 and 5 were the first human on earth. He does not insist, however, that these men and women named in the genealogies provide by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to the time of Abraham. He recognized the similarities of the Sumerian and babylonian regnal lists. These are not genealogies. Rather the so-called "begats" are king lists and pertain to the Neolithic period. These men are not the first humans on earth, but rulers of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion. They were kingdom builders, like Nimrod the Kushite (Gen. 10:8). This was a time of law codes such at the Law of Tehut, warriors, weapons, shrine cities or high places such as Nekhen in Sudan, and numerous technologies associated with the Neolithic Period. These earliest rulers of Genesis lived between 6000 and 3000 B.C., millions of years after the appearance of the first archaic humans in Africa.

Further, human populations were already widely dispersed globally by around 35,000 years ago, long before the 6-10,000 age of the Earth held by young Earthers. DNA studies confirm that the Neolithic R1b cattle-herding peoples had already dispersed across Africa, the Levant, Anatolia, and the Black Sea area by 20,000 year ago. Expansion of humans into the Arctic regions is evidenced by sites in Russian high latitudes dating between 31,000 and 34,000 years. The more recent Kushite migration mentioned in Genesis has also been confirmed by molecular genetics.

Barr also insisted that Noah's flood was portrayed as universal by the Genesis writer for theological reasons. This voice in Genesis comes from a time after Abraham and poses God's wrath as the reason for the destruction of all human and animal life except for what was preserved on the ark. Note that Barr is not saying that this actually happened.

Consider the following population estimates by urban center between 2400 and 2200 BC, the time when Noah's flood would have occurred:

Memphis, Egypt - 32,000 inhabitants

Lagash, Iraq - 60,000 inhabitants

Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan - 40,000 inhabitants

Mari, Syria -50,000 inhabitants

Baodun settlements, China - Baodun is the largest settlement, covering an area of about 373 miles. There is no evidence of destruction by flooding though all six Baodun settlements straddled the Min River in central Sichuan province. The Min is a tributary of the upper Yangtze River.

There is no evidence that any of these peoples were wiped out by a worldwide flood. The evidence simply does not support the interpretation that all the peoples of the earth were destroyed in a catastrophic global flood and that the earth was repopulated by Noah's descendants.

As a fascinating side note, the oldest known zoological collection was discovered during excavations at Hierakonpolis or Nekhen in Sudan in 2009. This royal menagerie that dates to ca. 3500 BC and included hippos, hartebeest,elephants, baboons and wildcats. The story of Noah preserving a collection of animals is based on historical reality.

Related reading: Was the Earth Repopulated After Noah's Flood?; The Genesis King Lists; YEC Dogma is NOT Biblical; Bishop Ussher Goofed


DManA said...

It seems that day in Babel when God "confused the language of the whole Earth" it wasn't a one time event. It ushered in a 8000 year continuing policy.

DManA said...

Here's what I don't get about the Flood literalists.

They aren't content saying God miraculously created enough water to cover the entire Earth, then miraculously make it disappear and restored the Earth to pristine condition, hiding all evidence of the miraculous catastrophe.

No, they invent fabulous theories about continents floating on oceans and miles thick layers of water vapor enveloping the Earth.

Why is it so important to them to believe God acted within the bounds of natural laws as we understood them in 1900? Why can't they believe it was a miracle and leave it at that?

Alice Linsley said...

I'm smiling.